North of Northwest: I (Heart) Winnipeg
Manitoba Legislative Building ::: photo by Brittney Bush Bollay
My brain wonders why I only slept five hours last night, and my stomach wonders why I felt it necessary to eat poutine four times in the last three days. I’m loading up the car with a backpack full of dirty sweaters and brushing four days of glittery snow off the windshield. We need to fill the gas tank. We’ve got 1500 miles of snowy road ahead of us, and I wish to god I had my sunglasses.
But this is not a story about poutine. This is a story about mythology, about the stories and legends you love and the words that you hold dear, the sacred places you have imagined and populated in your mind.
This is a story about a band.
Neil Young is Winnipeg’s most famous export, but the Weakerthans are the band most emotionally linked to the city. Winnipeg lives and breathes in every song, serves as backdrop and metaphor, appears as a character. To fans, the Weakerthans are not just from Winnipeg, they are Winnipeg, and in loving the band we’ve come to love the city by proxy.
So when my friend Drew and I decided to travel to Winnipeg to see the Weakerthans play four shows in four nights, it felt like more than just a vacation; it felt like a pilgrimage. Winnipeg, One Great City, snowy city of the plains, home of Our Dear Weakerthans: this was our sacred goal.
We decided to drive. We were both half-broke, and neither enamored with the TSA, but also there was a certain sort of belief: epic times call for epic measures. We would propel ourselves thirty hours across our country, through states people forget exist, creating more adventure where adventure already existed. (I mean, it’s not like any sane person decides that December is the absolute best time to visit Winnipeg.) We rented an SUV, stocked the backseat with goldfish crackers and string cheese, and set off.
I have just a few things to say about the drive: driving an SUV may make you feel like an asshole, but the Acadia’s heated seats are nice; Northern Idaho is lovely; North Dakota is almost exactly what you’d expect. A lady in a diner restroom in Bismarck volunteered that my skull-printed puffy vest was “very… unique.” We drove to Fargo and turned north.
It was 6:30 when we arrived in Winnipeg, and we quickly checked in and set off in search of poutine, Canada’s second greatest gift to the world (after the Constantines). I had prepared a list of recommended poutine establishments – once a Girl Scout always a Girl Scout – and we carried the weight of four layers of clothes through the snow to the nearest one. This trip was full of strange moments of fate. The diner was attached to that night’s Weakerthans venue.
The diner no longer served poutine, but we stayed anyway. Through the kitchen we could see over a half door into the venue. After months of Ticketmaster apology screens, fruitless eBay searches, and unanswered Craigslist ads, this was as close as we were going to get. We eventually wandered off for beer, but later in the evening came back and secreted ourselves in the lobby, whose wall seemed to back the stage. I stuck my ear to the crease of the door to hear John K. Samson sing “They called here to tell me / that you’re finally dying / through a veil of childish cries.” “Anchorless,” Fallow, track 11. We stayed for two songs, then wandered smiling into the cold.
That wasn’t it, though — what happened next was just as important. Our hostel housed a pub on the ground floor, and Drew and I decided to wander in.
Behind the bar stood a man in a Constantines sweatshirt. It was the same one that I have, the red one with “CONS” on the front and “Constantines” in (partially fake) Russian letters on the back, with white piping and a zip up the middle. The zip on mine is really hard to close. “I have that same sweatshirt,” I told him, and instantly we were friends.
Granted, everyone in Winnipeg wants to be your friend. It turns out they call it “Friendly Manitoba” for a fucking /reason/. Our server at the restaurant in the first venue tried to find us tickets for that night’s show. A woman who stopped and offered directions on the street later recognized us in a bar and invited us out for drinks with her friends. Meaning to go for lunch, we’d spend half an hour on our way out the door chatting with the hostel staff. Best of all, it seemed genuine — not “niceness” or “friendliness” but a real interest and desire for camaraderie.
Still, Jack (that turned out to be his name) and the staff at the Lo Pub (that turned out to be the bar) were something special. Drew and I soon realized we’d driven 33 hours to stumble, by dumb luck, into a home away from home. A place where we all loved beer and music and people and the Weakerthans and Winnipeg. And a place where, in another gift of fate, the Weakerthans afterparties were being held every night.
The next morning I put on tights, wool tights, socks, a tank top, a thermal, a blouse, a sweater, some pants, boots, a coat, a scarf, a hat, and some gloves, and journeyed nimbly into the cold. We had no real mission save poutine and beer: “Eat, drink, and be curious.” What was Winnipeg like? What did The Holy City like to eat for lunch? Where did it sell its outerwear and its hockey memorabilia? Was it true that you could walk halfway across the city completely underground? (Answer: yes, but only if you can find the bloody entrance.)
Truthfully: despite my music-nerd idolization of the place, I didn’t really expect much of Winnipeg. We’re all led to believe that there’s basically nothing between Vancouver and Toronto, that every other Canadian city is just a hamlet, a bleak outpost town. But Winnipeg has a larger population than Seattle, and with full-time opera and ballet companies, if it is a hamlet, it’s a remarkably sophisticated one.
Other things that Winnipeg has: an excellent record store, the world’s best Goodwill, 4 am Chinese food, a full day’s worth of toy store, a hockey team named the Moose, and excellent vegetarian poutine, located, fatefully, at the restaurant in our hostel.
Drew and I had tickets for nights two through four, so our Weakerthans experience began in earnest Thursday night. The West End Cultural Center is roughly the size of Neumos, the largest venue the band plays in Seattle. In Winnipeg, it had briskly sold out. This night was both a beginning and an apex for me, as the band would be performing Left and Leaving, my favorite of their four studio albums.
As the title implies, Left and Leaving tells of journeys and farewells, of sadness and loneliness and just the sweetest bit of hope. As the band played through the album, everyone in the room sang along. I looked around and saw soft smiles reflecting the blue lights of the stage. Everyone in this room loved this band. Everyone was just so happy to be there.
I was with my people. Read the rest of Brittney’s Winnipeg and Weakerthans adventure after the jump
There was a sign on Albert Street that fascinated me. Over a black door was a slightly wavy concrete marquee, upon which someone had written “BAR” in what looked like Sharpie. Underneath was the word “ENTRANCE” in the same style, but that was it — no name, no other information. I found it equally fascinating and terrifying.
It turns out that this dubious ingress was once the entrance to Wellington’s, the (equally dubious) bar immortalized in “Wellington’s Wednesdays,” on the Weakerthans first album Fallow. We came across it by chance, but really, in a city so vital to a body of work so familiar, such encounters were bound to happen.
We could have taken a deliberately Weakerthans-based approach to exploring the city, could have sought out every intersection and establishment alluded to in the songs, but we chose not to. In the end, we didn’t need to. In the course of our more aimless explorations, Drew and I found ourselves lost at Confusion Corner (“Civil Twilight”), marveled at the floodlit St. Boniface at night (“Hymn of the Medical Oddity”), heard feet on the polished floors of the underground (“One Great City!”). I saw “Without Mythologies’” tunnel of silent shivering trees. The city still breathing beneath the enormous sky. The Weakerthans’ Winnipeg was all around us.
Friday night’s show took place at the Pyramid Cabaret, a capacity 300 venue with a vaguely Egyptian theme. The album was Reconstruction Site, my least favorite, and the crowd that night was my least favorite too — polite, of course, but somehow less warm, less appreciative. I made an easy and deliberate decision not to care. They played my favorite song during the encore. We waited ten minutes in line to retrieve our coats from the coat check, and walked back through the glittering snow to the Lo Pub’s affectionate embrace.
The Weakerthans’ Winnipeg was all around us, but somewhere along the way something happened: it became our Winnipeg, too. Nights closing down the Lo Pub, talking with the staff and drinking Little Scrapper IPA, days criss-crossing the city in search of poutine and adventure. We discovered things, our own things: a tabletop game shop in the Exchange District, a rambling antique mall in Osborne Village. I bought a vintage Winnipeg Jets jacket and Drew found a book on the Arctic. We ate twice at Segovia, a tiny tapas restaurant that I would recommend to anyone who finds himself within a fifty-kilometer radius.
We saw the Winnipeg Art Museum and wandered the grounds of the Legislative Building, which is stocked with enough Masonic imagery and fancy Greek math to fuel a DaVinci Code sequel. Also, there are concrete polar bears. We watched lovers ice-skate in the silent twilight and saw people do rail slides in a giant public skate- / snowboard park. We got caroled in a Vietnamese restaurant, and somehow we didn’t mind.
Somewhere along the way, Winnipeg stole our hearts.
Night four was the grand finale, the big shebang, all four studio albums played back-to-back in the beautiful turn-of-the-century Burton Cummings Theatre. The show was ostensibly seated, but a space in front became open for standing, and Drew and I seized the chance and hurried up. (I left my bag, wallet, phone and all, tossed beneath my seat. I had no fear, somehow, that anyone would steal it.)
It was an exercise in endurance, for the audience and of course even more for the band. Forty-nine songs, three-something hours. Everyone’s dearest and everyone’s least favorite tracks. A thousand-something of us stood or sat, journeyed, bore witness, felt like we were part of something Important, Historic, or at the very least, something pretty great. “Don’t worry,” the exhausted band said three-quarters of the way through, “we’ll never do this again.”
After the show, I clung stubbornly to the stage until someone gave me a set list.
The show was great, but the after party might have been even better, if nothing else because the beer was better and our friends were there. Drew and I returned to the Lo Pub to see Jack onstage instead of behind the bar, wielding the tambourine for his band Novillero. Jack, it turns out, is a fucking rockstar on the tambourine, and Novillero blew the sweaty, packed crowd away. I think we all had a little tension to release, after four nights immersed in the Weakerthans’ quiet restraint, but I also think the band was just plain great.
Later I lost my voice talking over the roar of other voices in the bar. The women’s toilet flooded; someone broke a glass. Drew and I talked to the Weakerthans’ guitarist for nearly an hour. He seemed genuinely friendly and happy to meet us. We photographed our new friends and drank a lot of beer for free. And when three o’clock rolled around and the threat of the alcohol inspectors loomed, we crawled off to bed with smiles and a six-pack of Winnipeg beer we’d garnered in an exchange.
We had come to Winnipeg, and we had won.
The drive back was mostly unimportant. I saw a bobcat in a field; we had terrible pasta in Regina, Saskatchewan. Drew dodged elk in southern B.C. and I drove terrified through a blizzard in Idaho. I tried Tim Horton’s for the first time (and was largely unimpressed). Twenty-seven hours after we left Winnipeg, “One Great City!” singing farewell from our iPod, we arrived back in Seattle. I felt exhausted and victorious. I returned the car to Hertz a week to the minute after I picked it up. Fate.
I want to listen to the Weakerthans forever; I never want to listen to the Weakerthans again.
Thank you Winnipeg.
Appendix: Lyrics to “One Great City!” by the Weakerthans
Late afternoon, another day is nearly done A darker grey is breaking through a lighter one A thousand sharpened elbows in the underground That hollow hurried sound, feet on polished floor And in the dollar store, the clerk is closing up And counting loonies trying not to say
I hate Winnipeg
The driver checks the mirror seven minutes late The crowded riders’ restlessness enunciates The Guess Who sucked, the Jets were lousy anyway The same route everyday And in the turning lane Someone’s stalled again He’s talking to himself And hears the price of gas repeat his phrase
I hate Winnipeg
And up above us all Leaning into sky Our golden business boy Will watch the North End die And sing, “I love this town” Then let his arcing wrecking ball proclaim
I Hate Winnipeg
_______ A special thank you to Jack, Lynlea, and Stevan at the Lo Pub; to Drew; to the Weakerthans; and to the city and people of Winnipeg.
In memory of Ben Russell. _______